14 March 2010

The Ethicist on library fines

Finally, the important stuff!

I borrowed “Juliet Naked,” the latest Nick Hornby novel, from my local library a few weeks ago. It is due today. Unfortunately I’m only about halfway through and can’t renew it, because it is on hold for another patron. I’m willing to pay the penalty, 25 cents a day, so I can keep reading. May I do that, or must I return it knowing that someone else is waiting for it? RACHEL BUCCI, SALEM, ORE.

You must return the book. That 25-cent charge is not a rental fee but a goad to return it promptly. As you note, other people are waiting for the book, hence the library’s decision not to let you renew it. That the fee is inadequate to provide a proper incentive, that the library does not instead charge $25 a day or $250 a day or impose a vigorous flogging (as described in the no-doubt-renewable “Mutiny on the Bounty”), bespeaks ineffectual enforcement tactics, not the freedom to keep a popular book past its due date. Similarly, the willingness and wherewithal to pay a speeding ticket does not make it O.K. to speed. (That’s why some countries make the price of a speeding ticket proportional to the daredevil’s income.) The injunction “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” is specious. It should be “Don’t do the crime.” The public library is such a splendid institution; you should honor what I suspect you know to be the intent of this rule rather than embrace some sort of money-talks philosophy.

update: Bucci returned the book. She intends to check it out again.

from today's NYT Magazine. I feel like while returning a book late may not be fair, it's a bit of a stretch to raise it to unethical. We don't know whether Ms. Bucci needs to keep the book out another day or two -- say, on a rainy weekend when running the simplest errand makes you want to just build an ark already -- or for a few weeks more. There are no degrees in ethical difference, but practically speaking, there are.

Then again, I clearly have a financial interest in this topic. (I also found the book in question very hard to put down, but that's neither here nor there.) What do you think?


jo said...

Well, I just reserved this book at my local library. The book must be a good if someone willingly wants to go over the lending period!

Wade Garrett said...

I think that, if you're a couple of days away from finishing it, its probably okay, but if you've got 200 pages left to go and do the mental calculation that 8 x $0.25 = $2.00 which is less than the book's cover price, that's less okay. I have returned books, marked down what chapter I was on, returned it, then immediately re-reserved it. You usually get it back as soon as that other person has finished it, just a couple of weeks later.

Lori L said...

Confession: Years ago we lived in a small town and I was very good friends with the librarians. Whenever I was on the wait list for a book and it was in when I was in the library (and I was there a lot), they'd bump me ahead on the list and check it out to me immediately. The reason was quite simple. They told me that they knew I would read the book in 2 to 3 days and return it immediately whereas many of the others on the list would keep it the full two to three weeks (can't remember how long it was)and beg to renew it.

Moonaroo said...

I loved Juliet Naked and it doesn't take that long to read. I would say to hurry up and be done with it already and get it back as soon as you possibly can.